Thank you cards or letters – for gifts, hospitality, favours – are not optional, they are an absolute necessity. The silence that follows giving a present, or throwing a dinner party, becomes eloquent and ominous with significance. The unfortunate host or benefactor will naturally leap to the conclusion that their present or hospitality has been found severely wanting. The reality might be no more threatening than laziness or bad manners, but the damage is done…
So make it a golden rule that you always write to say thank you. A substantial present, lavish hospitality, a weekend stay are all occasions that demand a fully-fledged thank you letter, which is devoid of clichés and replete with references to specifics (the absolute rightness of the present, the wonderful company and food at dinner, and so on).
There may be some exceptions. You might, for example, have received, opened and exclaimed over a present with such breathless enthusiasm that a follow-up letter seems de trop. Or you might feel that the casual supper party doesn’t warrant the formality of a handwritten thank you note – a quick call or text of thanks the next day seems perfectly adequate. But you can always do better than merely adequate. If you are in doubt, these are occasions when a thank you card, with a short personal note added, is entirely appropriate.
Whether you’re writing a thank you letter or a short note, ensure that your thanks are never dutiful and banal. Avoid clichéd phrases such as “Thank you for the xxxxxxx, it’s just what I always wanted”. The simple route to thank you success is to always zero in on the particular. If you’re thanking someone for a present, no matter how dull, find something specific to say about it. – “thank you so much for the socks – the grey will go really well with my work suit” – is a heroic effort to gloss over possibly the most boring present ever.
This principle should also be applied to thanks for hospitality. Don’t come up with the ‘we had a lovely time’ formula. Comment, instead, on the deliciousness of the food, the beauty of the country walk, the excellent wine… If the weekend was a comically awful disaster, you might even be able to make a joke of it (“I thought we were all going to be incinerated when your flambéed sauce got out of control, but James was a real fire-fighting hero!”).
Always send a handwritten letter or note. Certainly, emails are preferable to no thank you at all, but they are a second-best option. Emails are graceless, bureaucratic, and carry the associations of work and businesslike despatch of duties. Handwritten notes, however, are deeply personal, tangible objects, and – above all – they look like you’ve actually gone to some trouble (penning the note, choosing appropriate stationery, locating a stamp, walking to the post box). The effort you have made will be seen as commensurate with your gratitude.
Finally, thank you notes and letters – like all good manners – should gloss over failures and disappointments. The fact that the present was a grotesque travesty, or the evening was a social disaster should never be reflected in your note. Part of the fun of being a good thanker is to always find something positive to say, no matter how severe the provocation…